It may be hard to imagine in a place like Montreal, Canada, where heavy snow blankets the ground for nearly half the year, that freshly picked local produce could be enjoyed all winter long. But thanks to Lufa Farms, the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse, Montrealers have had the opportunity to eat up ripe local fruits and veggies year round since 2011. And from those first days, Lufa Farms has since grown to bring clients—known as Lufavores—items from other local producers, such as sustainable meat and dairy products, fresh baked vegan desserts, Fair Trade coffees, and even organic beauty products. We sat down with Lufa Farms co-founder Lauren Rathmell to find out more about their operation, their products and the company’s vision for a future full of rooftop farms.
What is the vision of Lufa Farms?
Lauren Rathmell: Our vision is to grow food closer to where people live and grow it more sustainably. Hence rooftop greenhouses in and around cities, with responsible cultivation practices (recirculating water, using only biological controls for pests and diseases, energy savings). Building on rooftops allows us to utilize lost spaces without taking up new land, as well as save immensely on our energy needs year-round. It’s also a win for the building in terms of reducing energy spent on heating and cooling.
You now have two rooftop greenhouses operating just outside the city of Montreal. What are some of the challenges and perks of growing food in such an urban environment?
LR: It’s definitely beneficial to be close to our subscribers and deliver food within a relatively close distance. This allows us to harvest vegetables to order for each day’s baskets (for freshness and to reduce waste), as well as have a direct connection with the community through farm visits and other outreach. It can be challenging to find suitable buildings for rooftop greenhouses to build new sites, and summers are pretty tough, as cities are hotter than rural areas, so being on an urban rooftop means it gets pretty warm in the greenhouse.
How does being a Lufavore work?
LR: Customers subscribe for a weekly basket on a given delivery day, which is delivered to a certain pick-up point, like a local coffee shop or gym, that we deliver baskets to. They get an email two days before their delivery day letting them know the ‘Marketplace is open,’ meaning they can start shopping for their weekly basket online. Baskets are fully customizable, so customers can pick exactly what they want from the online marketplace, from all the veggies we grow in our greenhouses, to seasonal produce from other local farms, to local sustainable dairy and meat, to freshly baked bread from Montreal bakeries. At midnight before the delivery day, the Marketplace “closes” and we get to work packing baskets for the day’s orders (starting at 2 a.m. and out the door by mid-day). We harvest to order each morning from our greenhouses and many of our suppliers (especially the bakeries) prepare everything to order each morning, so the products are as fresh as possible. Customers can then go pick up their basket from their pick-up point and get to eating and cooking.
Lufa Farms not only provide food grown in your greenhouses, but also items from other local producers. How are companies and products selected to be part of Lufa Farms?
LR: They have to meet our criteria for sustainable production. If they’re a farm, this means either being Certified Organic or practicing responsible agriculture, i.e. no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and sustainable farm management.
You talk about envisioning a city full of rooftop farms. Do you believe Montreal could one day be that city?
LR: We’re feeding about 2 percent of Montreal’s population right now, so we’re well on the way! It would actually only take the rooftops of about 15 shopping centers to feed Montreal. Rooftop greenhouses are challenging to find sites for and build, but it’s definitely possible, and we’re continuing to expand both within and hopefully outside of Montreal, too. It’s about rooftop farming, as well as partnering with local farms and foodmakers. We call it creating a local food engine that provides a viable alternative to traditional grocery shopping, through sustainable, local sourcing.